While much of the music made in Memphis over the decades has been rightly celebrated, public awareness of it has skewed toward the secular. But many of the local rock-and-roll, soul, jazz, and pop performers that have won renown grew up playing in churches, and there are more still who never left gospel in the first place. As Bruce Watson, head honcho at Fat Possum and Big Legal Mess Records, began discovering rich veins of religious music in the area's history, an idea began to germinate: Why not create a new label, so all of that material could have a home?
"One of my jobs is collecting old masters and buying old labels and stuff," Watson tells me. "And that gospel stuff from the 1960s and 1970s was always just so amazing. I just didn't hear that in modern gospel music. So basically I wanted to create a Memphis-based label that concentrated on recording gospel music and trying to make it sound like it was recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, but could also reissue stuff."
The result of that idea is the newly minted Bible & Tire Recording Company, the latest label in the Fat Possum family, which officially announces its debut this Saturday at the Crosstown Theater. The two flagship releases being debuted also happen to capture the twin missions of the new imprint: recording new tracks with a vintage vibe and reissuing gems from back in the day. The former approach is embodied in the new record, The Sensational Barnes Brothers, and the latter in the new collection, Elizabeth King & the Gospel Souls' The D-Vine Spirituals Recordings.
- Bill Reynolds
- The Sensational Barnes Brothers
"I guess it all started for me 15 or 16 years ago, when I found my first Designer Records stuff," says Watson of his discovery of one decades-old catalog of gospel material. "And I was like, man, this stuff rocks so hard! And that started me researching who Designer Records was, and how do I put this stuff out? So that put me down the path of really appreciating deep soul gospel stuff."
The first result of that discovery was The Soul of Designer Records, a box set of the old label's best material, released by Big Legal Mess. But the Designer catalog lives on in Watson's new imprint as well, supplying the material reinterpreted by the Barnes Brothers on their debut. "The first time I used the Barnes Brothers was on a Robert Finley record I did at Scott Bomar's studio. They sang background vocals, and I was blown away."
While brothers Chris and Courtney Barnes came up singing gospel with their parents and their siblings, bringing the two brothers to the fore as a headliner act in their own right was initiated for this new record. "All the songs on the new Barnes Brothers record were songs that artists on the Designer Records catalog had done. Basically, they came in, I used my studio musicians, and we made that record."
One song from over 40 years ago resonated with the brothers. "We were listening to the song, and the guy on the recording sounded just like my daddy," says Chris Barnes. "I was like, 'We gotta do this song!' And the message really stuck out to us."
"You can hear all the conversations he used to have with you through that one piece of music," adds brother Courtney. It's a poignant moment, for only three months after the brothers invited him to sing on their album, Duke Barnes passed away.
Meanwhile, the vintage tracks by Elizabeth King and company reflect another label from that era, D-Vine Spirituals. One key player in unearthing that catalog was Michael Hurtt, best known as a member of the Royal Pendletons. "Mike's really the one who saved these recordings. Clyde Leopard was an early Sun musician who started the Tempo Recording Service, where Pastor Juan Shipp, who owned D-Vine Spirituals, produced and recorded all the D-vine tracks. And the tapes were being stored in Leopard's recording studio in his house," Watson says.
Hurtt then saw to it that they were properly stored until Watson was able to acquire them. More of the vintage tracks will be released as Bible & Tire grows. Meanwhile, Saturday's show will also feature Gary "Lucky" Smith, The Vaughn Sisters, the D-Vine Spiritualettes, and Elder Jack Ward — all artists from the heyday of the D-Vine Spirituals label. As Watson has noted elsewhere, "It's soul without the sex."